Fall squash, collateral damage-free

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Squash and pumpkins have tough skins - and also come pureed, frozen or canned.

I can't imagine how much I would have to love a man to dice kabocha squash for his dinner.

Along with "clean the squid" and "open the coconut," cooking instructions that involve reducing the size of roly-poly winter squash are easier said than done.

This is the time of year when commands such as "cut the butternut squash into 1-inch-thick slices" fall into the lives of home cooks as frequently as autumn leaves. Such recipe directions in no way hint at the battle that must be engaged to do so.

This is unfortunate, because nothing says October and November like the warmly orange and comforting dishes that may be made from these sturdy members of the gourd family.

Unlike the zucchini, a summer squash with thin and edible skin, winter varieties like the butternut, acorn, turban, Hubbard, kabocha, and pumpkin wear thick, hard suits that require considerable upper-body strength to pierce. In addition, their pulp is solid, making them more rocklike than the watermelons of summer.

The outer layer, of course, makes them much easier to buy ahead - they don't require refrigeration. And they're loaded with beta-carotene and antioxidants. But preparing winter squash for cooking is not for sissies; bravery, a sharp knife, and elbow room are necessary.

Although many people mention bagels when talking about kitchen knife mishaps, I think of squash.

A dozen years ago, I was greeted at the door by a friend whose right hand was wrapped in a kitchen towel. The kitchen looked like a crime scene, what with blood on the floor and a lovely Hubbard squash sitting on the granite countertop with a chef's knife stuck in it.

Instead of sitting around drinking cocktails, we spent the evening in the emergency room nursing her gashed hand and awaiting stitches.

We never did get to eat the soup she had planned to serve (the recipe is below). And to this day, she buys only lovely varieties of green, white, and orange-streaked squash to use whole as fall decorations for her dining-room table and fireplace mantel.

There are several ways to avoid such a fate.

The first, which is the path I favor, is to mainly make winter squash dishes that require mashed or pureed pulp.

Modern technology has given us frozen blocks of cooked and mashed butternut squash. This is generally sold in 10- or 12- ounce packages. Whoever came up with the idea to offer it, and canned pumpkin puree - with all the dirty work done - is on my list of domestic heroes.

These can be transformed quickly (and safely) into soups, pies, cookies, and more with the addition of spices and/or broth. (Note: One pound of winter squash, after cooking and mashing, yields about 1 cup. One 12-ounce package of frozen winter squash, defrosted, yields about 1½ cups.)

Also increasingly available are bagged, frozen chunks of peeled squash. And many supermarket produce sections now offer uncooked, precut fresh squash.

Many of us have no complaints about these shortcuts. But some cooks feel there's a certain sweetness and flavor that cannot be achieved unless fresh winter squash is transformed a la minute.

So, for those of you who think no pain in the kitchen is no gain, consider taking winter squash out to the woodpile to attack it with an ax, or dropping it from a tall building.

No, wait. There are other ways to go.

First - just as you might prefer to parallel park without witnesses - send everyone out of the kitchen.

Then sharpen a good chef's knife. Use a counter or tabletop that is low enough so your elbows bend only slightly as you place your hands on the table. This gives you more leverage.

If you require mashed or pureed squash, you are in luck because you need make only one cut. Do so by stabbing the squash and then using a rocking motion to cleave it in half. Scoop out the seeds and dress the insides of the halves with butter, herbs, and perhaps maple syrup, depending upon the desired flavor profile.

Place the halves, cut side down, in a dish or rimmed baking sheet and roast them at about 400 degrees, until the squash is soft when a skewer or knife is plunged into it and it is somewhat caramelized where the pulp has touched the cooking pan. Roasting also concentrates the squash flavors by reducing its water content.

The notoriously hard-to-peel skin will lift right off. Scoop out the now-soft pulp to use in the recipe.

To those among you who still wish to perform the ultimate labor of love by chopping or dicing winter squash, I advise first stabilizing the curvy vegetable by cutting a slice off its bottom or side so it will not roll around.

Use a good-quality serrated peeler to remove the thick skin. You can also boil the squash for about 5 minutes to soften the skin before peeling it off with your fingers or a paring knife.

Revert to a chef's knife - remember that rocking motion when the pieces are still large - to gradually reduce the vegetable to a chopped or diced state.

Congratulate yourself if you have escaped injury and, above all, remember to inform your dinner guests or family of the perils you navigated to bring this dish to them.

Precut and cooked or sliced or roasted squash is used in the accompanying recipes. Intentionally, none calls for it to be diced.

 


Squashed Macaroni and Cheese

Makes 8 two-cup servings

Cooking spray

One 16-ounce box elbow macaroni

Two 10-ounce packages frozen pureed winter squash

2 cups low-fat milk

1 1/2 cups grated extra-sharp cheddar cheese (4 ounces)

2/3 cup grated Monterey Jack cheese (2 ounces)

1/2 cup part-skim ricotta cheese

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

2 tablespoons plain dry read crumbs

2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1 teaspoon olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking dish with cooking spray.

2. Cook the macaroni according to the package directions. Drain and transfer to the prepared baking dish.

3. Meanwhile, place the frozen squash and milk in a large saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally and breaking up the squash with a spoon until it is defrosted. Turn the heat up to medium and cook until the mixture is almost simmering, stirring occasionally. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the cheddar, Jack cheese, ricotta, salt, mustard, and cayenne. Pour this mixture over the macaroni and stir to combine.

4. Combine the bread crumbs, Parmesan, and oil in a small bowl. Sprinkle over the top of the macaroni and cheese. Bake until the cheeses are bubbling around the edges, about 20 minutes, then broil for 3 minutes so the top is crisp and nicely browned.

 

- From The Food You Crave by Ellie Krieger (Taunton, 2008)

Per serving: 399 calories, 18 grams protein, 58 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 11 grams fat, 30 milligrams cholesterol, 500 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.


Marinated Butternut Squash

Makes 8 servings

2 medium butternut squash, seeded and cut into 1-inch slices

Salt and pepper

8 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided use

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1/2 medium red onion, sliced paper-thin

1/2 teaspoon red chile flakes

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 clove garlic, sliced paper-thin

1/4 cup fresh mint leaves

1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Season the squash with salt and pepper, drizzle with 4 tablespoons of the oil, and place in a single layer on 1 or 2 cookie sheets. Bake until just tender, about 18 to 20 minutes.

2. Meanwhile, mix the remaining oil with the vinegar, onion, chile flakes, oregano, and garlic. Season with salt and pepper.

3. Remove the squash from the oven and pour the marinade over it. Allow to cool for 20 minutes in the marinade, sprinkle with fresh mint leaves, and serve. This dish may be made earlier in the day, but should not be refrigerated.

 

- From Today's Kitchen Cookbook (Meredith, 2005)

Per serving: 158 calories, 1 gram protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, 2 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, no cholesterol, 92 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.


Butternut Squash and Potato Pie With Tomato, Mint, and Manchego

Makes 4 side-dish servings

2 heaping tablespoons shredded fresh mint leaves

2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

Salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 1/4 pounds butternut squash, quartered, peeled, seeded, and thinly sliced crosswise

1 large ripe red tomato, halved, seeded, and grated

2/3 cup (3 ounces) grated Spanish manchego cheese

1/4 cup fresh ricotta or small-curd cottage cheese

1 1/2 pounds red or Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced

1 cup milk

3 tablespoons flour

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the mint, parsley, garlic, and salt and pepper. Remove and reserve half the mixture. Add the squash to the bowl and mix well. Add the grated tomato and the hard and fresh cheeses and toss to combine.

2.    Toss the potatoes with the reserved garlic-herb mixture. Place half the sliced potatoes on the bottom of a generously oiled 21/2-quart earthenware baking dish. Spread the squash-tomato-cheese mixture on top and cover with the remaining potatoes. Pour the milk over all, dust with the flour, and drizzle the olive oil on top.

3.    Bake for 40 minutes. Raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees and continue to bake for 30 minutes or until the gratin is brown and the liquid is nearly absorbed. Allow to rest for 15 minutes before serving.

Per serving: 405 calories, 19 grams protein, 54 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 14 grams fat, 33 milligrams cholesterol, 523 milligrams sodium, 6 grams dietary fiber.


Quick Butternut Squash Bisque

Makes four 11/2-cup servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped yellow onion

1 garlic clove, crushed

1 teaspoon ground cumin

1 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 1/2 tablespoons finely grated ginger

Two 12-ounce packages frozen butternut squash puree, defrosted

1/2 cup chicken or vegetable broth

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/2 cup applejack brandy or apple juice

About 3/4 cup maple syrup

1 1/2 cups canned, nonfat evaporated milk

Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a soup pot, heat the olive oil. Over medium-low heat, saute the onion and garlic until the onions are translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the cumin, nutmeg, and ginger. Stir to combine and cook 30 seconds more. Stir in the defrosted butternut puree, the broth, soy sauce, brandy, and maple syrup. Simmer over very low heat for about 10 minutes.

2.    Remove from heat and puree the mixture with a hand blender or in a food processor or blender. Return to the pot and add the milk. Cook a few minutes, then taste for salt and pepper, adding each to your taste. Serve hot.

Per serving: 439 calories, 12 grams protein, 85 grams carbohydrates, 56 grams sugar, 8 grams fat, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 633 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.